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Lessons from America's surprising No. 1 bike town

How did snowy Minneapolis beat out Portland, Ore., for the title of best bike city in America? This year, Minneapolis is adding 57 new miles of bikeways to the 127 miles already built, and an additional 183 miles are planned over the next 20 years.

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This year, Minneapolis is adding 57 new miles of bikeways to the 127 miles already built, and an additional 183 miles are planned over the next twenty years. By 2020, almost every city resident will live within a mile of an off-street bikeway and within a half-mile of a bike lane, vows city transportation planner Donald Pfaum.

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Having the option to ride apart from heavy traffic encourages more people to try out biking as a form of transportation.

The visiting planners and city officials – from Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh – inspected America’s “first bike freeway,” Cedar Lake Trail, which runs along an uninterrupted rail corridor from the western suburbs through downtown Minneapolis to the Mississippi River. They also rode the Midtown Greenway, another converted rail line, which cuts through the city’s south side and carries as many as 3,500 bicyclists a day.

Both connect to numerous other trails, creating an off-road network that reaches deep into St. Paul and surrounding suburbs. Intersections are infrequent along these routes, which boosts riders’ speed along with their sense of safety and comfort.

Minneapolis also launched the first large-scale bikesharing system in U.S. – called Nice Ride – and boasts arguably the nation’s finest network of off-street bicycle trails.

Minneapolis bikers face the added challenge of cold, snowy winters.

“We’re colder than Montreal or Moscow,” Steve Clark, program manager of Bike Walk Twin Cities, told the visitors, “but that doesn’t stop people from riding their bikes in even the coldest, snowiest, darkest conditions.”

Clark’s group found that one in three summertime bike commuters will also ride regularly on warmer, sunny winter days; one in five will be out on their bikes through snowstorms and temperatures below zero.

City workers clear snow from the off-road bikeways just as they do the streets. Studded snow tires and breakthroughs in cold-weather clothing make year-round biking easier than it looks, Clark said. A few tips for would-be winter bikers: install fenders, ride slower, lower your seat so you can use your boots as an emergency brake, and enjoy the Christmas-card scenery.

Clark emphasizes the importance of doing bike counts throughout the coldest months.

“Actual data legitimizes winter biking as transportation, and debunks the idea that bike projects are frivolous because they are used only in the summer.”

Making biking safer and more accessible

Minneapolis is committed to creating separate rights-of-way for bikes (i.e. keeping them a safe distance from cars) wherever feasible. Research shows that most people – including many women, families, and older citizens – are wary of biking alongside motor vehicles on busy streets. Having the option to ride apart from heavy traffic encourages more people to try out biking as a form of transportation. Nationally, only a quarter of riders are women; in Minneapolis, 37 percent are.

Since the 1970s, Dutch city planners have separated bicyclists from motor vehicles on most arterial streets, with impressive results. The rate of biking has doubled throughout the country, now accounting for 27 percent of all trips. Women make up 55 percent of two-wheel traffic and citizens over 55 ride in numbers slightly higher than the national average. Nearly every Dutch schoolyard is filled with kids’ bikes parked at racks and lampposts.

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